"Technology is here to stay. If before, the topic was “technology is coming”, now, people are entering in different travel agency, an online one, and booking themselves."
Let’s discuss about Accent Travel Travel & Events. Can you introduce Accent Travel & Events, what would your pitch be?
Lucian Boronea: If at the beginning, in 1999, the focus was on Business Travel, on the way, we have found an opportunity in content distribution. With the help of dcs plus solutions, we have managed to accomplish our dream because, if there is a limit when distributing content through a classic format, with an API connection, through a diversity of channels (wholesalers, OTAs, offline travel agencies, direct integrations or through other travel tech companies) it’s much easier and your technology helped to achieve the variety in distribution. I think that this is what made the difference for us today. I can’t say that it saved us, but for sure it makes me smile today. It helped a lot to have beside me a team that believes we will be one of the winners of this crisis because I think that many things will change, reset. For us, the ones that have this diversity in business, without losing our focus on the main lines, this will be a plus.
Even if we say that we have both corporate and tour operating it doesn’t mean that we have a mix between the two of them. The two lines are very well defined, with different technical solutions, with different teams, and different projects that might intersect sometimes, but that are very well defined and structured. If I should define Accent Travel, I would use: passion, technology, and team. Or we can follow this order: team, technology, and passion. Technology is always in the middle, it is the backbone.
Let’s get back in time! Every business had to make some decisions, adjust its resources and shift the plans! What were the main actions taken in the first couple of months when the pandemic started?
If I remember well, just one week before the official star of the pandemic crisis, I had a meeting with all the team and I have announced them that the months that will follow will be very difficult. I admit that I didn’t expect to last more than 1 year, and somehow, I have managed to prepare my colleagues and announced them our plans until June 2020, both in reorganizing the business line and the human resources. My colleagues were skeptical at that moment, and I can understand them because they thought that I took on short notice some actions. The good thing was that on the 1st of June 2020, we were already reshaped, and we are still in the same formula, in terms of opened offices and team.
I have made some changes from the beginning and explained to my team why I had to take some actions and, if the first decision seemed somehow tough in terms of restructuring the team, reducing the costs, clients and discussions with partners, the second decision was focused on what I can do to sell. I have started to discuss with all the travel tech companies from Romania to distribute all our content from Romania through their channels. On one hand, I have restructured, and on the other hand, I have searched for new areas to start a business and it seems that this helped me because I have invested in new integrations, new servers and I have upgraded all the used solutions. This kept me moving on with new projects and the team realized that we have not adopted a wait-and-see strategy and cutting costs approach, but we were looking for new areas to develop our business. I was in permanent contact with the team, but mostly with our clients. We had discussions with all our clients to show them that we are here and we are with them.
During every crisis, lies great opportunity. What opportunities were out there for Accent Travel during the last year?
The main opportunities were mainly in distributing as much content as we can through as many potential partners we can have. Or somehow to make some of them that, let’s say, we're using AIDA via IRIX solution offline, to head to travel tech partners that have more simple or complex, more expansive or cheaper solutions, and to make them understand that the digitalization will help them and their clients to have real-time content access. This was the main action that we took, and I believe that it was also an educational area, that we have committed. We had monthly webinars with our partners in which we had explained them what Accent Travel is doing, what content we are providing. We have received many positive feedbacks from them and requests for a specific type of content based on their needs.
Would you change something that you did one year ago?
Let’s say that the measures that we implemented were 80 – 90 % efficient. I think that it is a satisfactory degree taking into consideration the uncertainties from that period, but if it was something that had to be done and it wasn’t, I think is the acquisition area. Because it was a moment when there were a lot of opportunities in the market. It is not a closed chapter, but today, everyone has different expectations. There were several months when the only thing that you had to do was to ask and for sure you could find companies financially and emotionally unbalanced that were in a merge and acquisition moment or in a total exit moment.
The sustainability of the business is on everyone’s minds right now - how are Accent Travel’s goals progressing?
We were thinking that we have to review monthly our business plan but, after the first 5 months, we have realized that we only had a 4.1 % deviation from it, and it was not necessary to modify the plan. So, we are where we wanted to be. And I can say that, for the leisure area and content distribution business line, we are above what we’ve planned. We haven’t managed to achieve the target on the corporate side and I don’t think that we could do something different to achieve it.
I am pleased with the numbers because if they will maintain like this until the end of the year, and if my logic is correct because the leisure had a behavior change: there are many sells for immediate departure, I think that if this trend is kept we should exceed our proposed business plan.
Since March we have re-started the recruitment and we have expanded the team, but somehow related to the contracting area, AIDA production, and content distribution. I am satisfied that I have managed to bring back a part of the team that I had to lay off.
If we are talking about the branding, people are looking for us and our opinion and, we have become somehow an informal leader in communication: they are asking our opinion about the market evolution, about what will happen with the Governmental Programs for helping the travel agencies. We have managed somehow, me, as a CEO and also my team, to have permanent discussions with them and to increase our brand value in this period because some of our competitors haven’t managed to communicate as needed.
What role do you see technology playing in addressing travel recovery?
Like every company, we had ups and downs, but what saved us when we were down was the technology, because I managed to reduce the company size without affecting the processes and procedures, due to the technology that sustained us very well.
It might be strange what I am saying but, if it feels normal to be sustained by technology when you are down; the technology also saved me in the years when we had increases above 100% for years, as we couldn’t have managed to keep it up without technology with all the new employees hired monthly, with different organizational cultures, with new procedures.
Technology helped me nowadays, in the pandemic crisis, to have larger volumes than in 2019, in the same period. And I am sure that, at the end of the year, I will be over the target just because I have managed to be in every channel following some normal steps: from a classic content distribution via IRIX to distributing through other travel tech companies that had ecosystems, to direct integrations with some important OTAs from Romania, We are also integrated as a supplier for a big Global Wholesaler, and this is just the beginning. We hope that, until the end of the year, we will become the supplier for another Wholesaler that will have content from Accent for Romanian destinations.
Through technology, you start to build a business model and without it, I don’t know how I would operate today and, this can be seen from my effort to automate everything.
AIDA helped me with the content export, the OBT is not fully used at its entire value, or at least we are not using it at the entire capacity for our clients. We have seen in the last couple of months an increasing demand from some of the Corporations that we have previously tried to show our technology, but they weren’t ready and now, they are looking to use it because of the work from home period when it is becoming clear that they need to have everything structured in a single platform, where everyone has visibility. I am confident that the Corporate area will get back to normal more refreshed and will use the dedicated technology for this business line.
How do you see the upcoming 12 months?
I am sure that, in the next year it will be a full recovery for the domestic area, there were many investments made in Romania, in new locations. Part of the ones that traveled for business in this period will revisit the places seen in Romania during the pandemic crisis. We are lucky to have everything in our country: Seaside, Danube Delta, spa and wellness, mountains.
On the other hand, the Corporate line makes me nervous as I don’t foresee even a 50% recovery for next year, but maybe a full recovery in 2024. And I’m worried the most for MICE segment because it is hard to foresee if the market will ever recover to that abundance of team buildings, workshops, and conferences. I think that at one point, in every type of industry there was also a fear that the ones that were not having a lot of team buildings, conferences, and other parties will be at a disadvantage against the ones that had all these activities. I think that it was a reset in the mindset and that they will value other things. A lot of our customers are using the Hybrid Conferences and will never abandon them from now on. The MICE line will recover very slow but, maybe we will reinvent ourselves: we are now looking for a solution with a major International Partner to start offering our corporate customers the options to use Hybrid Conferences, having an advantage by bringing the clients and managing our accounts on their platform.
What advice do you have for any CEO today from the travel industry?
Never give up. This is what I am also telling myself every day. Sometimes things happen easily, but most of the time, they are hard to get, and life has taught me that if you don’t give up and you are patient, the projects for which you must wait for one year, two years, three years, four years or even five years, will happen and the perseverance is a part of this plan.